Author’s note: “Fishbone” was a finalist for The 2011 Norman Mailer Award, a writing contest for teachers that is supported by The National Council of Teachers of English and The Norman Mailer Center. This story was recently published in print the summer 2012 edition of the Illinois English Bulletin.
With the same narrator, the story also picks up where “Ninety Days”—which was published recently by Drunk Monkeys—left off. The pieces are part of an untitled circle of stories, which is still very much a work-in-progress.
My sponsor Rick was worried. My wife—soon to be ex—had sold our house, and we were meeting for dinner at a seafood restaurant on the coast inDover. I told Rick the dinner was about closure, literally, but it was also about trying to move past the hurt and forgiving her for sleeping with another man while accepting my own fault in the matter.
“You’ve only been sober a few months, Mark,” Rick said over the phone as I choked down a cigarette outside the entrance to The Lobster’s Claw, a place Lisa and I would frequent when we dated in college. “At this point,” he said, “you should avoid situations that will jeopardize your sobriety, and this sounds like one to me.”
“I’ll order a Diet Coke and call if I get into trouble,” I said, watching my shadow on the sidewalk. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that two weeks ago I’d started drinking again. I was drinking alone in my apartment, every night, after coming home from my AA meetings.
“Be strong,” Rick said. “First things first.”
I turned to my left and saw Lisa walking toward the restaurant, her high heels clicking against the concrete. I dropped the lit cigarette and crushed it with the heel of my sandal. “I have to go, Rick. I’ll call later,” I said and tucked my cell phone into the pocket of my khaki shorts.
After four months apart, seeing Lisa hit me like a fast jab to the groin. Her dark hair was stacked loosely on top of her head, and she wore a short paisley sundress, the high heels, and stop-sign lipstick. I couldn’t tell if she’d lost weight or somehow redistributed it in the right places. The thought that some cop with a crew cut and Cro-Magnon features was climbing into bed with her each night was a second jab, slightly below the belt.
“You look great,” I said as she approached. Rattled, I reached for another cigarette—to soothe my nerves—then placed it back in my pack.
“It’s good to see you, Mark,” Lisa said and smiled, her eyes dropping like she was visiting a sick friend at the hospital. “Did you make the reservation?”
“It’s at seven,” I said and flipped open my phone to check the time. “We have a few minutes.”
“Do you want to go in and have a…” She paused and placed her hand over her mouth. We’d been talking on the phone and sending e-mails, mostly about the house, but I’d slipped in some details about my alleged sobriety in a desperate attempt to impress her. I wanted Lisa to see me as new man, a man capable of making good decisions. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s all right,” I said. An ocean breeze skipped off the water and cooled my blushing cheeks. “I can sit in the bar and not drink.”
“How long has it been?”
“It’ll be four months in two weeks.” In AA, they counted the days then weeks, and low-balled when rounding off months.
“Congratulations,” she said and grazed my arm with her fingernails. “How do you feel?”
“Like a new man.” To buy time, I lit that cigarette and offered her the open pack. It was a Friday night, and the crowd from the bar on the back deck rumbled like a chest cough. The band wouldn’t start until later, but the young crowd, the drinkers dedicated to landing bar stools, showed up early and staked out their ground. I was once one of them.
After glancing over both shoulders, Lisa snagged a smoke from the pack. “I told Brad I quit,” she said. His name, coming from her mouth, seemed vulgar, like a cuss.
I flicked the lighter until I got a steady flame and carried it, while cupping my other hand, toward the end of the cigarette dangling from Lisa’s red lips. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t tell him.”
Rick would say that everything happens for a reason. He’d say there’s a divine order to the chain of events in our lives, good and bad, and the imperceptible hand of a higher power is constantly moving them. Rick believes we choose whether or not to listen when our higher power speaks to us, or as he would say, we can willfully play the fool. While I could never fully get my head around the whole higher power concept, even I have to admit, some things defy my belief that everything is thrown in the air and lands in random patterns where we either assign them meaning, or we don’t. In other words, Rick believes the table where you get sat at a restaurant is not pure chance, but part of some divine plan we couldn’t possibly understand.
Lisa and I got a table in the back corner of the dining room by a window overlooking the deck and the drinkers. Beyond stretched the Atlantic, its slow surf slapping against the thick wooden posts supporting the deck and finally stopping on small piece of private shoreline. As the unpleasant discussion about the impending sale of the house, our final tie to each other, stuck in our throats like a fishbone, we watched the tide, inhaled the salty air, and waited for someone to take our drink orders.
College-aged with a heart-shaped face, our waitress came to the table with a pad in her hand, bouncing on her toes. “Can I get you guys something to drink?”
I knew without looking that Lisa rolled her eyes; it peeved her when people used the term “guys” when speaking to a female. The question startled me. My usual answer, the knee-jerk response, was to order a Sam Adams on tap. Then I remembered my sober story.
“I’ll have a Chardonnay, Sutter Homes.” Lisa nervously tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, melting me. “Is that all right?”
I waved my hand. No sweat. Then the waitress turned to me. I gazed out at the water, the deck, and the young people—my people—laughing and sipping their drinks. “I’ll have a Diet Coke.”
“Thanks, guys. I’ll be right back with those,” the waitress said and scampered away into the sea-scented mix of the dining room and its nautical paraphernalia—an old chipped captain’s wheel mounted on the wall, a banged-up bright orange buoy, black and white photographs of a bearded fisherman standing on the bow of a ship, smoking a pipe with the docks in the background.
“She’s cute,” Lisa said after the waitress was out of earshot, as if she were offering her as a consolation prize. “Are you dating anyone?”
My mouth opened then closed. “My sponsor suggested I stay away from new relationships for the first year of sobriety,” I told her, instead of the truth.
Lisa nodded. “I see.”
I tapped on my water glass. “It’s really good to see you. There are some things I want to say to you.”
“I wish I could have a drink.”
“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” she said. “I didn’t mean to put you in a bad spot, Mark. I just thought it would be better, easier, if we could still be friends.”
“Right. Friends,” I said and stopped myself from staring at her chest. Although I’d touched her breasts thousands of times, they now seemed as strange and new and exciting as a shuttle into space.
At the table in front of us, an old couple was picking at a plate a calamari and not speaking. They stared down at the food like they’d used up all their dinner conversations years ago and now no noise was left except the dull scrape of their utensils on the plates. At that moment, watching the old couple, I had never wanted Lisa back so bad. I was kicking myself for all the nights I could’ve had her; for all the nights she’d made her body available to me and I chose beer instead; for all the nights I came to bed, drunk and blasted on painkillers, and rejected her advances in favor of a dreamless sleep. Coupled with my insane jealousy and my paranoia and my manic mood crashes, it’s not surprising she looked elsewhere for attention. In the four months since moving out, I’d spent many late nights, alone and anguished, realizing that maybe I’d driven her to cheat, forced her into bed with other men who would notice her, appreciate her.
I swallowed hard and worked up the courage to say what I had come there to say. “I miss you,” I said. “I feel like I don’t know you anymore, and it’s killing me.”
“Mark,” Lisa squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m glad you’re getting better.”
The waitress came back with our drinks and placed them on beer coasters. “Would you guys like to order an appetizer, or do you need more time to look at the menus?”
“We’ll have an order of crab cakes,” we said at the same time.
The waitress smiled. “That’s so cute. How long have you guys been together?”
Lisa picked up her wine and took a careful sip, her lipstick staining the rim of the glass. “We’re just friends,” she said.
And I died a little.
With their appetizer plates cleared, the old couple sucked water through clear straws, frowning and looking in opposite directions. They were one of those couples that had begun to resemble one another, the type who, as they grow old, begins to look like siblings, not spouses. The woman had short, gray hair with a mannish cut and thin rigid lips. The skin on her face, bullied by gravity, snagged downward in a perpetual scowl. The man had a similar haircut, although slightly shorter, and the same droopy face and tight mouth—as if both of them had sealed any affection for each other deep into the catacombs of their coldness. They sat across from each other, like they were dining alone, sulking in silence.
“There’s something else I need to tell you,” I said and instinctively reached across the table for her hand. She let me hold it for a moment—perhaps a rote reaction—before gently pulling it away.
“What do you want to tell me?”
I wanted—and maybe I intended—to tell her everything: how I hated my crappy one-bedroom apartment in a poor section of Manchester; how I spent three miserable days in county jail for my last DWI and soundlessly cried in my cell each night; how I couldn’t sleep when I was sober, imagining her in bed with another man, imagining another man admiring the way she bites down lightly on her bottom lip before she’s about to orgasm. I wanted to tell her how I’d entertained the idea of hiring a prostitute because I was so fucking lonely and wanted to be touched by a woman. It had nothing to do with getting off, I wanted to tell her, just being touched. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t want to sell the house we bought together and severe that last frayed tie. I wanted to stop the act and tell her the truth. But I didn’t. Instead, I grabbed a napkin on the table and scrunched it into a ball. “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Lisa said.
“But I do. It’s my fault we’re selling the house. All of this, it’s my fault. If I wasn’t so selfish and wasted all the time, you never would’ve done what you did. I drove you to it, and now I want to put this in reverse and go back and make it better. Can’t we make it better?”
The sun was setting on the horizon, and a blinding pool of orange light bounced off the surface of the water. Then Lisa reached over and placed her hand, like a lacey shroud, on top on my balled fist. She said, “I’m sorry, too. It’s my fault, too.”
As I squinted to see her face, the bombast of light on the water obscured her and all I saw was the silhouette of the woman who was once my wife. “Do you love him?” I asked.
“Mark, don’t.” She pulled back her hand, and before I could respond, a plate of crab cakes was placed between us. She reached for her fork, and I reached for my beer. But it wasn’t there. I stood up.
“I have to use the bathroom,” I said and walked out of the dining room toward the hostess station at the entrance where you’d turn right for the restrooms and left into the bar.
I turned left.
Crowded with the jukebox cranking in the corner and the band setting up on the outside deck, I squeezed up between two college-aged guys on the barstools. I flagged down the bartender, a stout man around my age, a late twenty-something who looked vaguely familiar. After filling a beer and placing on a waitress’ tray, he glanced at me.
“What can I get you, buddy?”
Temporarily, I was transported back to a time when I was comfortable, before the burdens of being an adult began to lean into me. I allowed my shoulders to relax and reached for the bowl pretzels. “I’ll have a shot of Cuervo,” I said.
“You look familiar,” said the bartender, reaching behind him for the bottle. “Did you used to come here, maybe six or seven years ago? I remember your face.”
“I used to come here often.”
“I knew I remembered you. You had long hair and you’d come in with this pretty brunette, and the two of you would get all lit up and dance in front of the bands, right?”
I nodded. “I married her.”
The bartender pursed his lips and placed the shot in front of me. “Lucky guy,” he said. “She sure was a looker.”
“She sure was.” I reached in my pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill and placed it on the bar top. I then picked up the shot and tossed down my throat, and choked and coughed like I’d swallowed gasoline. When I looked down, a sip of the clear liquor was left, settled in the bottom of the glass. I finished it then walked out. Paranoid that Lisa would smell the tequila on my breath, I’d grabbed two mints from the hostess’ station.
When I sat down, Lisa grinned. “Are you all right?”
“I went out for a cigarette,” I said and sipped my Diet Coke. “I’m feeling much better now.”
“Good,” she said as the waitress approached our table. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Lisa and I ordered our entrees, a fried clam and a fried scallop plate, which we would share when we were in college, but I doubted there would be any communal eating tonight. She ordered a second glass of wine. On the deck, the band was running a sound check, and Lisa picked at her clams with a fork, something I’d never seen her do. She used to eat them with her fingers.
“The couple buying the house offered ten grand below our asking price,” she said without looking up from the plate. “But it’s enough to pay back our loan and break even.”
“Where are you going to live?” I asked. Lisa had said she was still living there, alone, but I knew that the cop stayed there quite a bit, slept with her in the same bed we had shared. Late one night, drunk, I called the house and heard him in the background. After hanging up the phone, I got in my car and drove up and down Valley St., looking for prostitutes. Instead of a girl, I found a cop in my rearview mirror, blue lights flashing, and got popped.
“I’m going to live with Brad until I find a place,” Lisa said.
“I guess it’s pretty serious.”
“I guess.” She stared out at the ocean, the small waves finishing their long trek to the shore. “Darla, the woman who lived next to us, isn’t doing well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“A hospice nurse has been coming to the house each day. I don’t think she has a lot of time left. And her husband Wayne told me that her teenage daughter ran away. It’s so sad. She’s too young.”
“Do remember the time you flashed Wayne and his friends when I was drinking with them in the driveway?”
Lisa laughed. “I was so pissed at you.”
“We got past it.” In fact, and I suspect Lisa remembered this as well, in the earlier morning hours we snuck into Darla and Wayne’s RV and had sex as the sun came up. Sex was always easy and natural for us. From the first time we slept together in college, we seemed to anticipate each other’s needs and respond greedily to each other’s touch.
“Things were different then,” Lisa said with her head turned to the window and her hand pressed lightly to her throat. She watched the last of the daylight strain from the sky as the floodlights on the deck switched on.
A clamor came from the table in front of us. A plate smashed, and a chair overturned. Like a boxer about to hit the canvas, the old man started to stagger backwards. He bumped into Lisa’s chair, changed course, and fell into his table. The old woman watched wide-eyed while mouthing his name: “Richard.” Then she said it a second time, soft and careful. As the old man’s hands went to his throat and his face had turned a purplish-blue, her mouth opened again and finally the scream erupted. “Richard!”
Everyone in the dining room turned toward the commotion and watched in horrified awe as the old man fell to the ground. A waiter and a cook ran from the kitchen and tried to lift the old man to his feet.
Lisa reached over the table and grabbed my hand. “What wrong with him, Mark?”
Stunned, I shrugged.
The old woman held her head with her hands, screaming her husband’s name, as the cook, a thick guy with a handlebar mustache and a Harley Davidson doo-rag, propped up the old man and stood behind him with his fist jammed into his ribcage, thrusting inward. The old man hung as limp as a wet leaf from his arms.
“Mark, is he dead?” Lisa asked, her voice quivering.
I said nothing. The old man’s wife was petting her husband’s hair, sobbing and hysterical. That’s when I caught a glimpse of his face: the man’s eyes were wide, his mouth open, his last breath as distant as the daylight the ocean had swallowed.
I handed Lisa another cigarette as we walked under the streetlights to her car, which was parked in front of Murphy’s Pub, an Irish bar where we’d go during the winters when The Lobster’s Claw was closed.
Lisa and I stood side-by-side like strangers at a bus stop. “Do you need a ride home?” she asked.
“I got a motel,” I said and looked at the heavy wooden door, the entrance to the bar. “Can I ask you something personal?”
“I don’t have to answer.”
“Does your boyfriend know you’re here? With me?”
Lisa bit down on her bottom lip, but this was different and I saw for it was: a sign of fighting back shame. “I told him I was meeting Ellie.”
We both looked up and locked eyes. I lifted my hand to her cheek, my wife for another month until the divorce would be finalized. I had enough of the lies, the shame and the stories that we’d someday pass as half-truths. “Drive safe,” I said and turned and walked toward the entrance to Murphy’s Pub. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my phone.
He answered before the first ring finished. “How did it go?”
“Listen, Rick,” I said, opening the door. “I have something to confess.”
Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry—Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside Press, 2007) and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. He has an MFA in fiction writing from The University of New Hampshire and teaches high school. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts will be published by Bottle of Smoke Press this summer. For more information, visit his website at www.nathangraziano.com.